To an untrained eye, American figure skater Adam Rippon performed nigh flawlessly during the team skating event in Pyeongchang that aired Sunday. The 28-year-old first-time Olympian skated with verve, made no major mistakes, and—this is a big one for us armchair skating judges—remained upright for the duration of his time on the ice.
But when all was said and done, Rippon finished in third place, behind two skaters who had fallen during their routines. What’s the deal?
The deal, my friends, is that, in figure skating as in life, it’s sometimes better to try a difficult thing and fall on your butt than to take a cautious approach and stay on your feet.
Scoring in figure skating is divided into two basic components: the program component score and the technical element score. The program component score measures the performance, choreography, footwork, and artistry of the skating routine. Rippon’s component score was slightly higher than that of the second-place finisher, OAR skater Mikhail Kolyada—who, as previously noted, fell on his butt during the first jump of his own routine, a quadruple lutz. So then why did Kolyada top Rippon? The answer lies in the other half of the figure-skating scoring.
The technical element score measures the various jumps, spins, and sequences that make up a skater’s routine. Every legal jump and spin, from the single salchow to the mythical quadruple axel, has been assigned a base point value by the International Skating Union, with that base value ascending as the move becomes more difficult. The base-value scoring system also accounts for a skater’s execution of the routine, with specific deductions assessed for imperfectly executed elements, and additional points assigned for well-executed components.
The quad jumps, which are deemed the most difficult, carry the highest base values. A perfectly executed four-and-a-half-rotation quadruple axel—the jump has never been landed in competition—could earn a skater a staggering 18.6 points, whereas a perfectly executed triple axel maxes out at 11.5 points. A perfect quadruple lutz—the jump with the second highest value—would earn a skater a maximum of 16.6 points, whereas a perfect triple lutz would only bring in 8.1 points.
Why don’t more people try quads, then? Because quads are very hard to land, and most skaters can’t land them with confidence. Mikhail Kolyada, a wonderful skater, fell when he tried to execute a quad. A misstep like that can affect a competitor’s confidence and rhythm. And yet an imperfectly executed quadruple jump can earn a skater more points than a perfectly executed triple jump.
Mikhail Kolyada fell while doing a quadruple lutz, which has a base value of 13.6 points, with a maximum grade of execution score of 3.0—13.6 + 3.0 = 16.6, the top possible value for a quadruple lutz—and a maximum deduction of 4.0. Kolyada was docked 3.77 points for his lutz attempt but still walked away with 9.83 points for the element—almost 2 full points higher than he would’ve scored by doing a perfect triple lutz. (He also lost 1 additional point from his total score because he fell. This stuff is confusing.)
Rippon, too, had planned to open his routine with a quad lutz. But he shelved that plan and opened instead with a double axel, a comparatively easy jump that carries a base value of 3.30 points. Rippon executed it well, earning 0.64 additional points for his trouble, but he still only earned 3.94 points for his opening element. Rippon made fewer errors than Kolyada on Sunday night—he only received one negative grade-of-execution score, as opposed to Kolyada’s two. But Kolyada’s across-the-board execution scores were generally higher than Rippon’s, and, what’s more, he took more risks with the elements of his routine. Kolyada finished with a score of 173.57 while Rippon was a fraction of a point behind at 172.98. Given how close their scores were, any number of things could’ve shifted the result. It’s clear, though, that if Rippon had attempted that quadruple lutz and fallen on his butt, he almost certainly would’ve finished ahead of his Russian counterpart.
Canada’s Patrick Chan, who finished ahead of Kolyada and Rippon with a score of 179.95, attempted two quad jumps and landed both of them. (Chan fell on a triple axel, and also lost his balance on his next jump, a triple loop.) The takeaway here is obvious: If you think you can bring off a quad, even a second-rate quad, without risking injury, shaking your confidence, or imperiling the rest of your routine, then you should try the quad, because the technical element scoring system rewards risk. According to some in the figure skating world, that’s a problem. As Jeré Longman wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, some figure skating aficionados believe “the reliance on the quad has effectively reduced figure skating to a math test.”
Longman notes in that Times story that there’s “a proposal by international skating officials to reduce the numerical value of quad jumps after these Olympics in an attempt to restore more balance between skating’s athleticism and artistry.” For now, though, If you want to win the gold, you’re going to have to ace that math test. We’ll see if Rippon takes that message to heart when the men’s individual event begins later this week.